A friend sent me this Wall Street Journal Op Ed piece regarding San Francisco’s attempt to enforce political correctness and obliterate historical facts in America’s shameful record in its treatment of Native Americans and Blacks. This same subject was featured in a Lee’sPerspective Post on April 8, 2019.
Wall Street Journal – April 26, 2019
A San Francisco mural at George Washington High School in the city’s largely Asian Richmond District, has become the latest high-profile target of self-appointed censors who want to erase both history and art of which they disapprove. “Life of Washington,” a Works Progress Administration epic depicting scenes of America’s first president across 1,600 square feet, has been on display at a local school since 1936. Yet local activists and bureaucrats have decided its time has gone.
The president of San Francisco’s Board of Education is among the mural’s opponents, who have called the artwork “offensive,” “dehumanizing” and “insulting” to Native Americans and blacks. In February a school-board committee concluded that the art “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” and “traumatizes students.” No evidence was produced to show that the murals had traumatized anyone over the past 83 years. Yet the committee recommended destroying not only the two most controversial panels but the entire series.
Among the densely packed and vividly rendered scenes, including dignified images of Washington in war and peace, the mural depicts slaves working in Washington’s fields and the president pointing westward past the body of a slain Native American. Critics vilify these images, but they are not the stuff of saccharine hagiography. The mural’s painter, Victor Arnautoff, was a protégé of Diego Rivera and a communist. He included those images not to glorify Washington, but rather to provoke a nuanced evaluation of his legacy. The scene with the dead Native American, for instance, calls attention to the price of “manifest destiny.” Arnautoff’s murals also portray the slaves with humanity and the several live Indians as vigorous and manly.
Those who condemn the murals have misunderstood it, seeing only what they sought to find. They’ve also got their history seriously wrong. Washington did own slaves—124 men, women and children—and oversaw many more who belonged to his wife’s family. But by his later years he had evolved into a proto-abolitionist, a remarkable ethical journey for a man of his time, place and class.
Washington came to believe that blacks were neither biologically inferior to whites nor ordained to servitude by the Bible. As early as 1783 he considered founding a community for freed slaves with the ardently abolitionist Marquis de Lafayette. He came close to espousing emancipation publicly, but he demurred because he doubted that the fragile young nation could survive a crisis over slavery. In this, he was probably correct.
In his will, Washington freed every slave he owned—he couldn’t legally free those his wife’s family owned—and provided for them financially, stipulating “that this clause respecting Slaves . . . be religiously fulfilled . . . without evasion, neglect or delay.” Knowing that his will would become public, it was Washington’s way of speaking to the nation.
And far from encouraging genocide against Native Americans, Washington believed they should be fairly compensated for land already seized and that all future cessions of native territory should be negotiated legally. “While the measures of Government ought to be calculated to protect its citizens from all injury and violence, a due regard should be extended to those Indian Tribes whose happiness, in the course of events, so materially depends on the national justice and humanity of the United States,” Washington told Congress in August 1789. He tried to pry Indian affairs away from the control of state legislatures, whose political interests and corrupt speculation disrupted native communities by feeding chronic instability on the frontier. Unfortunately his efforts had little success.
In sum, Washington wouldn’t have met today’s standards of approved thought, but he was far from the racist caricature that the enemies of Arnautoff’s mural imagine.
The impulse to destroy troublesome art has become a crusade for those who imagine that revising history to suit their ideology is tantamount to revolution. Even the city’s arts commission, whose mission is to promote and defend art, has been AWOL, not taking a position on the mural. Earlier this month, another 80-year-old WPA mural was removed from a public school in Oak Park, Ill., solely because all the children portrayed in it happened to be white.
Some egregious works of art deserve to be revised—for example, a grotesquely dishonest memorial in Colfax, La., honoring “those fighting for white supremacy” during an 1873 massacre in which as many as 150 black freedmen died. But on the whole, instead of indulging in emotional and intellectually obtuse efforts to erase the past, it would be better to honor the truth by investing our passions in memorializing those parts of history that earlier generations suppressed.
Two sterling examples are the powerful new lynching memorial in Montgomery, Ala., and a proposed art installation at Princeton that will express Woodrow Wilson’s muscular idealism as well as his unadulterated racism.
The alternative is to begin the never-ending destruction of images and language that someone, somewhere may find offensive. “My fear,” says Gray A. Brechin, a scholar at the Living New Deal documentary project and archive, “is that if they are successful at destroying the murals, then no art that anyone finds offensive will be safe. . . . Are we to have a Museum of Suppressed Art to contain this pogrom of images?”
It’s not the business of democracies but of tyrannies to airbrush people from history or, in San Francisco’s case, to obscure the savage repression of blacks and Native Americans. The censors’ intentions—good, bad or ignorant—are almost beside the point.
Instead of hiding history, let’s work to remember it more fully, warts, triumphs and all. The past, it has often been said, is a foreign country. We ought to know it better.
Mr. Bordewich is a historian and author of “The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government.”